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Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Prosperity Principal’s Trusted Avatar shtick got my attention when I read about it on the mUmBRELLA site (a website for the marketing industry containing news). The link was delivered by mUmBRELLA’s Twitter persona.

I didn’t want to resort to short-termist posting, a reactive strategy dependent on interesting stories that appear near to the time of posting, but I feel there’s no other way to produce a daily post than this. Which may seem callow and transparent, but there you go. I’ve only got so much time available for blog posting.

The ad agency’s principal is Geoff Emerson. Going by his responses to comments on the original story, Emerson feels entirely justified in promoting the new service, which involves paid individuals adopting a persona for use in social networking and other Web 2.0 sites. These people ‘drop’ relevant links into the discussion. They do not declare that the link is part of an ad campaign.

In other words, they’re participating in a Web 2.0 version of ‘cash-for-comment’.

That little rort was, as many would recall, outed by the ABC’s Media Watch program. It involved experienced and trusted radio announcers dropping promos for products into their spiels, without disclosing that they had received remuneration for the boosting.

And Emerson is just as brazen. His replies to comments are vitriolic and aggressive, as though he were literally stunned that other advertising practitioners could find anything wrong with his plan.

Apart from anything else, the ‘trusted avatars’ are exploiting the good name of the forum they are participating in. Not content with relying on traditional vehicles for promotion, such as free-to-air TV and newspaper adverts, companies who take up Emerson’s offer of services will be relying on the good name of online sites that are likely to be – initially, at least – oblivious of the rort.

Emerson even admits that the plan is “black-hat”. This is industry code for something that is not-quite legit, or underhanded. But it’s not spam, he asserts.

There seems to be a problem of perception. What is the difference between what he proposes and a company buying space in a newspaper for editorial-like copy? Media companies self-regulate and have decided to only include editorial-like copy with a disclosure, such as an all-caps word at the top of the page that says ‘Advertisement’.

In a follow-up piece on mUmBRELLA Emerson lists the conditions of employment that would apply for people using personas under his plan. It includes this:

If someone asks if you are working for a company, please make a full and frank disclosure about who you are working for and why. If you’d like, you can forward these guidelines to them, it may make them feel more at ease knowing our guidelines and it may also demonstrate, that in return for being present at their site, we are endeavouring to deliver traffic to them. If asked to stop, do so immediately. Please never revisit a site that has asked you to refrain – then notify your manager.

Notify your manager? And what happens if you get, say, ten ‘strikes’ of this kind against your name? Will your employment be terminated? What kinds of people will want to do this kind of work anyway? Depending on the makeup of the cohort under contract, the likelihood of spamming seems high, everything else being equal.

But it is unlikely, given the kind of replies he uses, that Emerson will back down.

The project WILL go ahead. We have been warned. Oh, and by the way, this type of promotion has already been legislated against in the UK.

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